The Frog Prince, Revisited

Once on a time, there was a widow who lived with her daughter at the edge of a village. The widow baked bread for people in the village, and she had to work hard. Every day, she tried to get her daughter to help, but Molly, for that was her name, was always running off to play.
“If only,” cried the widow, “I had a daughter who was of some use in the kitchen!”
But Molly wasn’t any use in the kitchen or out of it. She would take her prized possession, a small golden ball, and she would run out to the forest to play.
One day, Molly came upon a pool in the forest. It was deep and clear, surrounded by rocks and ferns, and she bent over to have a look. And with a plop, her golden ball disappeared into the pool.
“Woe is me!” cried Molly. “What will I do? I’ve lost my golden ball in the pool!” And she sat down and began to cry.
“What’s troubling you, little maid?” asked a voice.
Molly stopped blubbering long enough to look up, and there, sitting at the edge of the pool, was a hideous old frog.
Molly didn’t mind frogs, and she blinked away her tears and stared at him curiously. “I’ve never met a talking frog before,” she said.
“I’m actually a prince under an enchantment,” said the frog, impressively. “If you promise to take me home, let me eat from your little plate, and let me sleep in your little bed, I will fetch your golden ball from the depths of this pool.”
“A prince,” said Molly, a little doubtfully. She had only ever heard of such things in fairy tales. And sleep in her bed? She wasn’t sure if her mother would want that.
She stared hard at the frog. “If you fetch my golden ball, then I promise to take you home. We’ll see about the sleeping arrangements.”
“Fair enough,” gulped the frog. And with a kick and a splash, he dove into the pool.
He was a long time under the water, so long that Molly began to wonder if he were ever going to come back. And then, with a splash and a splat, the frog was sitting on one of the stones. Giving a great croak, he spat the golden ball into Molly’s lap. And she was so delighted, she sprang up and ran all the way home, forgetting her promise to the frog. She might have remembered, but as soon as she came in the door, her mother put her to work.
“Fill the wood box, you lazy thing,” she scolded. “And when you are done that, you can set the table for dinner.”
Molly set to work, and in no time at all, she had the wood box filled, and she and her mother were sitting at the table eating soup and breaking off chunks of steaming, crackling bread.
Just then, there came a knocking at the door. “Young maid,” cried a voice. “Keep your promise. Let me sit at the table and eat from your plate.”
Molly ran to the door, and there was the frog, bobbing and puffing.
“What is that slimy thing?” asked her mother, peering over Molly’s shoulder.
“It’s a prince under an enchantment,” said Molly. “I promised that I would let him eat from my plate if he got my golden ball from the pool.”
“Well,” said the widow, “a promise is a promise. Bring the silly thing into the house, but keep it out of my way.”
Molly let the frog eat from her plate, but when it came time for bed, she found a box, and she stuffed the frog inside.
“Young maid,” cried the frog, plaintively. “You promised to let me sleep in your bed, so keep your promise.”
“You are a slimy frog, wet and icky,” said Molly. “You can sleep in the box.”
After that, the frog would sit and the table and eat from Molly’s plate, but at night she stuffed him back in his box. He complained and complained.
“You promised,” he would say. “You promised to let me sleep in your bed. I found your golden ball, and you must keep your promise.”
“Do you ever shut up!” cried Molly. And she got so tired of hearing him complain, she covered the box with a quilt to muffle his voice. And after a week, she’d had enough. She took the frog in his box into the forest where she found the pool.
 “Back you go,” she said, “enchanted prince, or no.”
And upending the box, she dumped the frog into the water. Just as she did, a great fish came up from the depths, and swallowed the frog with a snap.
“Oh,” cried Molly. “That wasn’t very nice.” And she grabbed the fish and heaved him out of the pool.
The fish landed on the ground with a great splat. “Young maiden, young maiden,” cried the fish. “If you put me back into the water, I will grant you three wishes.”
“Three wishes,” said Molly doubtfully. “Are you something enchanted as well?”
“Yes, yes!” cried the fish. “I will grant you three wishes, any wishes you like, as long as you put me back in the pool.”
But listening to enchanted creatures had got Molly into trouble from the start. “Cough up the frog, and then we can talk,” said Molly.
With a great, belching heave, the fish coughed up the frog. For his part, the frog was a little worse for wear having been in the stomach of the fish, and he just lay there on the ground, looking pathetic and half-dead.
“Now,” said Molly. “Yu owe me some wishes.”
“Fair enough,” gasped the fish. “But make it quick. I have to get back into the pool.”
“First,” said Molly, “if that frog is a prince, then change him back. And second, give my mother enough money so she doesn’t have to work so hard. And finally, I want a pet, and I don’t want it to be a frog. Perhaps a nice dog?”
Maybe the fish didn’t entirely understand. He was lying there gasping out his life, so he might not have heard correctly. At any rate, he took a shortcut. With a popping flash, the frog disappeared, but in its place, there wasn’t a prince, but a great, droopy-eared red setter. He panted once and gave a wine, and Molly was delighted. She picked up the fish, and dropped him back into the pool.
Molly went home with her new pet, and she found that her mother had suddenly come into some money, enough to open a bakery and hire some help. The widow became the most famous baker in the kingdom, and one day, when the King and Queen and their little daughter came to visit the bakery, Molly made a present of her golden ball to the princess.
After that, Molly spent her time with her new dog, whom she called Prince. He was gentle and loyal, and he never complained about a thing. She still had to help out around the bakery, but it was much nicer. And it could be said that Molly got her happily ever after after all, for she found her prince, and they lived together, very happily, indeed. Prince never spoke a single word, but he was the best of friends, and every night, Molly would let him sleep on her bed.

The School Year, A Force of Nature

As an undergrad, I was a terrible student. I left things until the last minute, I wheedled extensions on assignments, and I had bad study habits. Maybe I was just a student.
For years, first as a kid going to public school, then at the university, and later as a parent and a teacher, September has always meant the beginning of the year. New Years has never been the beginning; it’s only halfway. The real start of the year has always been the fall.
September has become a threshold in my subconscious, characterized by anxiety, anticipation, nervous excitement, and nostalgia. It’s such a weird month. The school year is a force of nature, rising from the remains of summer to drag students and parents and teachers alike down the fall and through the winter. She inexorably plows through holidays, good days and bad, only lessening her grip with the end of exams in April, until, finally, worn out and fading, she explodes into fragments with the arrival of graduation and summer holidays.
Every August, my kids would shop for school supplies with their mom, while I found backpacks and tried figuring out lunches my kids wouldn’t hate. But before kids and teaching, I was a weird, half-terrified undergrad at university, in awe of both the campus and my professors. These were people who knew more than I could ever hope to understand, who evaluated me with an unnerving objectivity, and who I could barely bring myself to address.
In my third year, I took a children’s literature course during the spring term with Jon Stott. He was then around the age I am now—short, a little round, and full of a restless energy. The class met in the Humanities Building, and I sat at a table near the door—my preferred seat. Professor Stott would pace up and down the room, lecturing as he walked, never relying on notes, and only stopping to occasionally write on the board. Back in those days, I used a slate and stylus for note taking, and it struck me from almost the first day that he didn’t seem fazed to have a blind student in his class. I had become used to professors not quite knowing what to do with me. They were generally helpful and understanding, but I couldn’t help sensing their bemusement, as though they had discovered a talking, brightly exotic reptile in their classroom.
Professor Stott came up to me right away and asked what he could do to help, and to come and talk to him if there was a problem. That in itself was unusual.
I took children’s literature during spring session because I was short an English course, and by third year I was becoming irritatingly superior as a student. Fortunately for me, I remembered that a measure of humility wasn’t such a bad thing when it came to reading. I discovered books in that class I’d never heard of, and I read books I’d known of for years but thought myself too intellectual to bother with. Meeting gilly Hopkins was a revelation. Reading Anne of Green Gables for the first time was a surprise. Wasn’t it a girl’s book? And who the hell was Aslan?
I learned how to ask questions in that class, and I learned to be less ashamed of how much I didn’t know. I had read a smattering of children’s books, and I always loved what I read. But I had never thought about kid’s books as being important in the same way as adult books. Professor Stott showed me differently. He talked about Gilly, Anne, and Bilbo as though they were real people. He brought them out from the page and took them seriously. And then he forced us back to the books—to read and read again, and not just make stuff up when we talked about the books.
I was lucky that spring. Lucky to meet a professor who was not only a skilled teacher but a skilled reader. He had a passion I couldn’t ignore, and he opened up a world of books that I’ve been exploring ever since. And luckier still, that spring I was open to something new and open to being taught. I was able to say what I thought in that class, and I was taken seriously. The experience enabled me to take on kid’s books as something to love, to read, reread, and wrestle with, for myself, with my kids, and in the classroom.

Gollum, the Evolution of a character

A character we won’t see in this December’s release of The Battle of Five Armies, the third in Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy, is Gollum. His absence in The Desolation of Smaug was somewhat overshadowed by the appearance of Smoug, the dragon, played brilliantly by Benedict Cumberbatch, but I still missed him.
Many readers of Tolkien aren’t familiar with the evolution of Gollum’s character, from his first appearance in the 1937 edition of The Hobbit and through its subsequent revisions while Tolkien wrote Lord of the Rings. From both the standpoint of writing and of fiction, Gollum is possibly one of Tolkien’s most dynamic characters, but he’s also one that evolves from a funny little creature who lives in the dark to a demonic ogre with hobbit ancestors who is maddened by the desire for the One Ring.
Jackson’s The Unexpected Journey (2012) brings Bilbo to the roots of the mountain, where he encounters Gollum, terrifyingly portrayed by Andy Serkis. The two engage in a riddle competition, one of the most poignantly drawn battles of wits in children’s literature. During their encounter, Gollum has moments where a different personality intrudes into his consciousness. He isn’t just talking to himself; he has two distinct personalities.
Don’t get me wrong. I love this scene from the movie. But the question becomes, why is Jackson portraying Gollum in this manner? While Andy Serkis’s performance of Gollum in An Unexpected Journey surpasses even that of his role in Jackson’s Two Towers and Return of the King, in some ways it’s a less accurate portrayal of the character.
The apparent split in Gollum’s character is the separation between the Smeagol and Gollum halves, those halves called Slinker and Stinker by Sam Gamgee in The Two Towers. These two halves of Gollum’s character say much about his obsessive desire for the ring, but Tolkien only develops this split during the writing of LOTR. Andy Serkis’s representation of Gollum in The Unexpected Journey has his character divided during his first encounter with Bilbo. Gollum appears to suffer what the DSM (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of mental Disorder) calls dissociative identity disorder. Gollum is an ogre, a pitiable one, but he isn’t in need of therapy. The doubling of character, and even setting, is something that happens throughout LOTR. Frodo and Sam, Bilbo and Frodo, Merry and Pippin, Gandalf and Saruman, Denethor and Theoden, Aragorn and Faramir, Aragorn and the Black riders all suggest contrasts in character and motivation. The doubling of Gollum’s character is more complex and more poignantly drawn than many others, and Tolkine uses it to further underscore the power of the ring to corrupt and destroy.
In Tolkien’s the Hobbit, Gollum talks to himself, or more accurately he talks to his Precious, but who wouldn’t, being stuck at the utmost bottom of a mountain for five hundred years. But the divide in Gollum’s character doesn’t occur here. His character only splits later in LOTR, once Gandalf recounts Gollum’s history, and after Frodo has exacted the promise from Gollum to keep ‘the precious’ out of the hands of the enemy.
cory Olsen, AKA the Tolkien Professor, claims that Gollum of the second edition of The Hobbit is the Gollum of LOTR. He says, in his excellent book, Exploring J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit:
“Thus, though the story of Bilbo and Gollum’s meeting was published nearly twenty years before The Fellowship of the Ring, I think it is fair to say that the Gollum in The Hobbit, as it now stands, is actually based on the Gollum of The Lord of the Rings.”
If this is true of Tolkien’s Hobbit, then it is equally true of Jackson’s film. If anything, it’s more so. Jackson is clearly capitalizing on Serkis’s performance, but it does the character something of a disservice as it leads movie-watchers to make certain assumptions about Gollum’s character and his development in Tolkien’s legendarium. Bear this in mind next time you watch any of the films.
Below, you can find a number of quotations, taken from John D. Rateliff’s The History of The Hobbit. The parenthetical comments are mine. Rateliff arranges parallel scenes from the first and second editions of chapter five, Riddles in the Dark, that clearly demonstrate the changes to Gollum’s character. This book is a necessity for anyone interested in the evolution of Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Enjoy.
First edition, 1937
Second edition, 1951
Third edition, 1966
First Ed.
“Deep down here by the dark water lived old Gollum. I don’t know where he came from or who or what he was. He was Gollum – as dark as darkness, except for two big round pale eyes.”
Second Ed.
Deep down here by the dark water lived old Gollum, a small slimy creature. I don’t know where he came from, nor who or what he was. He was Gollum – as dark as darkness, except for two big round pale eyes in his thin face.”
(Inserting the word “small” into this passage was Tolkien’s way of telling illustrators that Gollum was hobbit-sized, and not a troll-sized ogre.)
First Ed.
”Does it guess easy? It must have a competition with us, my precious! If precious asks, and it doesn’t answer, we eats it, my preciousss. If it asks us, and we doesn’t answer, then we gives it a present! Gollum!”
Second Ed.
”Does it guess easy? It must have a competition with us, my preciouss! If precious asks, and it doesn’t answer, we eats it, my preciousss. If it asks us, and we doesn’t answer, then we does what it wants, eh? We shows it the way out, yes!”
(The revised passage helps to clarify Gollum’s intent. The ring as Gollum’s birthday present becomes Bilbo’s cover-story to Gandalf and the dwarves, and what he sets down in his memoir.)
First Ed.
“Help me to get out of these places<” said Bilbo.
To this Gollum agreed, as he had to if he wasn’t to cheat, though he would have very much liked to have just tasted what Bilbo was like. Still he had lost the game …”
Second Ed.
Well?” he said. ”What about your promise? I want to go. you must show me the way.”
”Did we say so, precious? Show the nassty little Baggins the way out, yes, yes. But what has it got in its pocketses, eh? Not string, precious, but not nothing. Oh no! gollum!”
”Never you mind,” said Bilbo. ”A promise is a promise.”
”Cross it is, impatient, precious,” hissed Gollum. ”But it must wait, yes it must. We can’t go up the tunnels so hasty. We must go and get some things first, yes, things to help us.”
”Well, hurry up!” said Bilbo, relieved to think of Gollum going away. He thought he was just making an excuse and did not mean to come back. What was Gollum talking about? What useful thing could he keep out on the dark lake? But he was wrong. Gollum did mean to come back. He was angry now and hungry. And he was a miserable wicked creature, and already he had a plan.
(Here Gollum becomes the morally corrupt, wicked creature of LOTR, and the recognizable character of Jackson’s films.)
Olsen, corey. Exploring J. R. R. Tolkine’s The Hobbit. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012.
Rateliff, John D. ed. The History of The Hobbit. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2011.

the Bronze Egg, An Original Fairy Tale, Part II

The youngest brother wept over the body of his father, and then he covered the old man’s face and went to find the priest. The Priest came and the neighbours came. And they grieved for the old man, for he was a good-hearted and generous man, and all loved him.
When the old man was buried in the churchyard and the neighbours all gone home, the youngest brother sat by the fire, thinking of his father and feeling the silence of the great house all around. The silence got him thinking of his brothers, and that got him thinking of his father’s final words about the inheritance for his three sons. Curious to know about his brothers as much as about his own inheritance, the youngest brother took a lantern and climbed the stairs to the east-wing of the house.
He came to the first room and found an empty chest. He came to the second room and found there an empty chest. He came to the third room, and there he found a third chest.
Stepping curiously up to it, he lifted the lid. Inside, lying at the bottom was what looked like an egg. He took it carefully up in his hand, and it shone dully in the light from his lantern. It weighed heavy in his palm, and he carried it downstairs to his seat by the fire. Sitting in the light of the fire and looking at it curiously, he could see that it was a bronze egg.
“Why would my father leave me such a gift?” he wondered out loud. But he didn’t care, and he wrapped the egg lovingly in a cloth and stowed it into a pocket near his heart.
The next day, he set out to find his brothers. He walked and walked until he came to a river. On the edge of the river stood a little man—a dwarf, dressed in sack-cloth and peering at the youngest brother with beady eyes.
“You come seeking your brothers,” said the dwarf.
“Yes,” said the youngest brother. “And how did you know?”
The dwarf ignored the question. “If you give me the thing that lies closest to your heart, I will tell you where to find one of your brothers.”
The youngest had to think about it for a moment. The thing closest to his heart was the bronze egg given him by his father. He didn’t want to give up the egg, but he thought his father would want him to find his brothers. He drew the egg from his pocket and wordlessly handed it to the dwarf.
“Look in the river,” said the little man. “You will find both your brother and his inheritance.”
The youngest brother didn’t understand, but he stepped down to the bank of the river and began wading into the water. At a deeper point in the river, he found his brother held down by three great heavy sacks. The youngest brother dragged the body out of the river along with the sacks. He hailed a boy driving a donkey cart and took his brother home, making sure to give the boy a gold coin he took from one of the sacks.
The youngest son called the priest, but this time no one came to mourn with the youngest brother. He sat on by the fire until he fell asleep.
He had a dream as he slept, and he dreamed of his father. “You have done well, my son,” said his father. “You have brought back your brother, but now you must seek my eldest son. Bring him home to lie next to his brother.”
When the youngest son woke, he found his hand clutching the bronze egg. It was the strangest thing. But the youngest did not question his dream. He found his coat and he ventured into the night that was now lightening toward dawn.
The youngest brother had no idea where to look, but he followed the road until he came to a fork, where stood an old woman as though she waited for him.
“You seek your elder brother,” she said, in a voice that creaked like an old gate.
“Yes,” said the youngest brother. “He disappeared from our father’s deathbed two nights ago.”
“I can tell you what befell your brother, but you must give me that which lies nearest to your heart.”
The youngest brother thought at once of the bronze egg, and this time he did not hesitate. He took the egg from his breast pocket, and he handed it to the old woman, this time thinking for certain he would never see it again.
The old woman pocketed the egg at once. “If you follow this road into the forest, you will find both him and his inheritance. But you must be brave, for your brother has been murdered by a band of robbers. It is they who have his inheritance.” And with that, the old woman was gone.
“Robbers,” said the youngest brother to himself. “How am I to get back my father’s treasure from robbers?”
But he took a deep breath, and he followed the road until he came to a place overshadowed by trees. He left the road and walked into the forest.
It wasn’t long before he came upon a broken-down shack amongst the trees. The youngest stepped up to the door that hung crookedly, and he peered inside. There were the robbers, all asleep with their heads on their arms. And the youngest brother could see the empty cups and flagons scattered over the table.
They must have been celebrating their good fortune, thought the youngest brother. And he stepped quickly inside and found three great sacks that he knew must be his father’s treasure. He took up the sacks, and left as quietly as he had come.
As he drew close to the road, he found his brothers body. And then his heart sank, for his father had wanted him to return with his brother’s body.
He was about to abandoned the sacks when he heard the crunch and roll of wheels on the road. He peered out from the trees to see a man driving a cart with a high-stepping horse out in front. He begged the man to help him with his brother’s body.
The man, who was a merchant, had heard about bandits in that part of the forest, but he could see by the youngest brother’s face that he was an honest lad. He helped the youngest brother with the body of his brother. They tossed the sacks into the back, and then they drove back to town.
Once the merchant knew who the youngest brother was, he became much friendlier. “I knew your father, lad,” he said. “And I was sad to hear of his passing, and I will do all I can to help you in his memory.”
The youngest brother thanked the merchant, and when they came back to the front doors of his father’s house, the youngest brother handed the merchant a diamond from one of the sacks.
The merchant’s eyes widened. “You are as generous as your father,” he cried. “Bless you, young master.”
And after that it seemed the youngest brother was indeed blessed, although he didn’t feel it for some time to come. That afternoon, he buried the third family member in three days. The priest came once again, but no one else. And that evening, once again, the youngest brother found himself sitting and nodding by the fire.
He dreamed again that night, and his father came to him, smiling, and saying, “You are indeed my son. I give you my blessing, and I would only ask that you remain as selfless and generous in spirit as you have shown yourself these past days.” And then the dream faded, and the youngest slept deeply.
After that, the youngest brother set his mind to helping those in need. He learned to run his father’s farm and his father’s business so well that he was never short of gold.
He became as famous for his good deeds as his father. And when he fell in love with a pretty girl from the village, there was a wedding at the old house, and it was once again filled with laughter and merriment. And in the years to come, the youngest brother, who was now an important merchant farmer of the countryside, had sons and daughters of his own. And he loved them all, and the old house echoed with their talk and laughter.
And sometimes, during the long nights of winter, his children would climb over him as he and his pretty wife sat by the fire. They would beg him to tell them tales, to tell them about things past and things present, but their favourite of all was the story of the bronze egg.

The Bronze Egg, An Original Fairy Tale, Part I

Once upon a time, an old man lay dying in his bed chamber. His three sons sat near. Of the three, the youngest loved his father the best, and he sat at the end of the bed while the tears rolled down his cheeks.
The two elder sons loved their father too, but they were both practical, and they recognized that their father’s time had simply come. The old man was also rich, and they both looked forward to their inheritance, the thought of the old man’s gold eating at the edges of their hearts as they sat through the long night.
The old man was weak, but finally he opened his eyes and spoke weakly to his sons. “My dear sons,” he said. “My time has indeed come. I love each of you in turn, and I have left you something to help you in your lives ahead. Remember that the gift that I leave each of you will allow you to show your love, not just for me but for one another. Use my gifts well.”
“Yes father,” cried the older brothers together. “We will.”
“But where,” said the eldest, “have you left these gifts for us father?”
“They are in the east-wing of the house,” said the old man in his weak voice. “Once I am dead, each of you can go and claim his inheritance.” And then the old man fell back on to his pillows and did not speak again, and the three sons sat on as the old man’s laboured breathing continued through the darkening night.
Strange things can enter the heart during such a vigil. And it was at the darkest hour of the night that the eldest brother slipped out of the bed-chamber and headed for the east-wing of the house. He crept along, carrying a dark-lantern in one hand. At last, he came to the first of three closed doors.
The eldest brother opened the door and peered inside. Sitting in the middle of the floor was a great chest. He hurried into the room and threw back the lid. Inside lay more gold than he had ever seen, and his heart leaped.
As quickly and quietly as he could, the eldest brother found some sacks and began filling them with gold. When the bags were full, he crept out of the house and away, not bothering to take anything with him. “For now I am richer than I ever dreamed,” thought the eldest brother. “I can buy anything I want or need.” And his heart pounding with joy and greed, he hurried away into the night.
The second brother had, of course, noticed that the eldest had slipped away. He knew very well where his brother was going. The second waited long enough to make sure the younger brother had fallen asleep, and then he too slipped out of the old man’s bed-chamber.
The night had begun to grow old as the second brother crept through the house toward the east-wing. He came to the first room and found it empty. “Hah!” thought he. “My brother has been here and taken his inheritance. I will feel less badly taking what is mine and leaving that fool of a youngest brother to find what he may.”
And with that, the second brother crept along the hall until he came to the second door. He opened the door to find a chest standing in the middle of the room. He opened the chest and found glittering stones—diamonds, rubies, and emeralds—more wealth than he had ever imagined. He too filled some sacks, and he hurried off into the night, just like his elder brother.
As the dawn was beginning to lighten the horizon, the elder brother found himself at the edge of a river. He peered into the darkness at the water. “It can’t be that deep,” he said to himself. And he began wading out into the shadowy river. It wasn’t long before he came to the middle of the flow, and he began to hurry, thinking he was almost out and safe, but he caught his foot on a stone and slipped.
The current was strong, even if the river wasn’t especially deep. The eldest brother was intent on hanging on to the sacks of gold. But they were so heavy they dragged him down. He was swept into a deeper part of the river and there he drowned, never wanting to let go of his gold.
Meanwhile, the second brother had taken a different path upon leaving the house of his father. He followed a road through the night until he came to a crossroads. The sky was streaked with dawn as he stopped to catch his breath. The sacks of jewels were heavy. As he stood wondering what way to take, robbers leaped out on every side.
“Well, what have we here?” said the chief bandit.
Full of fear the second brother tried to run with his sacks of wealth, but the robbers laughed and cut him down with swords. They laughed with delight when they opened the bags to find the diamonds and rubies and emeralds. They cast the body of the second brother into the trees, and they took up the sacks and disappeared into the forest back to their hideout.
The sun was just rising when the youngest brother woke with a start to find his brothers gone and his father lying dead in his bed.
(to be continued)